Scottish Highland Dress
- TYPES OF SCOTTISH NATIONAL DRESS
- CIVILIAN OR NON-COMPETITIVE NATIONAL DRESS
- WHICH ARE AUTHENTIC CAMPBELL TARTANS
- BUYING CAMPBELL TARTAN
- KILTMAKERS ON THE INTERNET
While the terms, "Scottish Hghland Dress" and "Scottish Highland Wear" are often used interchangeably, both refer to the traditional dress of Scotland. There are a number of different styles of Scottish highland wear ranging from casual to full formal outfits. It also depends on whether you’re looking for an authentic 1500’s highland wear look (just to be clear the Outlander series is placed in 1743 Scotland) or more modern day attire that you see at a Scottish Highland Games or a Robert Burns Supper.
While Scottish-American dancers, pipers, caber tossers, shot putters, sheaf-throwers and kilt makers adhere very strictly to the standards of those skills as devised in Scotland, for some reason when the average Scottish-American is asked to consider the norms of Highland dress for non-competitive wear, there is sometimes a curious reaction.
Some people in North America apparently believe that any outlining of what is "correct" in Scottish Highland dress is a gross infringement if their independence and human rights. However many other people are interested to know what the standards are, even if they choose to exhibit variations on the theme themselves. Knowing just how much to infringe on the standards to show individuality and yet still maintain the traditions is a matter of subtlety which those with skill can enjoy.
To discard having any standards in any sphere of life leads only to chaos. Some believe that there is extreme danger of the genuine traditions of Highland dress being completely lost in experimentation and a preference for "costume" in place of Scottish national dress in the United States. While there is always a place for well-researched costume reproductions in any field, there is reason to hope that a growing number of Campbells will find the means of being able to dress well in the national dress of their heritage when the occasion demands.
For those who are confused by the plethora of "costume" one sees at the average North American Highland Games and who are yet more interested in participating in the continuing and evolving live traditions of Scottish National dress, there follows an outline of modern standards for their guidance. Nobody will arrest you if you do not always get things "right" but for those who like to know, here are some guidelines:
Where competition is concerned, whether in piping, dancing or athletics, it is best to consult someone already involved before buying any outfit. Not only will they keep you up to date with evolving customs but they may well know good sources for what you need and enable you to save.
Scottish military uniforms have continued to evolve with the needs and fashions of the times.
Highland regiments of the British army have worn kilts, Lowland regiments have worn trews (tartan slacks). The pipers in the bands of both have worn kilts.
Pipe bands of other services and of civilian organizations have often imitated the uniforms of the Highland regiments.
Today it is generally accepted that, for the sake of uniformity, women in bands will wear the same uniforms as the men.
Scouts in Scotland may wear their kilt with Scout uniform shirt.
Athletic competitors at Highland Games sporting events, particularly the heavy events, wear sports or tank shirts (or none) with kilts, kilt stockings and sports shoes. They seldom wear a sporran on the field as it gets in the way of the caber etc.
For Highland dancing competition (as opposed to Scottish Country Dancing), girls wear a tartan skirt designed like a kilt but with no sporran. They wear a blouse which may or may not have some reference to earlier styles of men's shirts. The typical dress for these competitions has improved considerably in simplicity during the development of the competitions in recent years. Men and boys wear day dress with dancing pumps. Again, check local organizations for requirements.
Scottish Country Dancers who perform in exhibition at Highland Games or Scottish events generally wear day or evening dress as appropriate to the time of day. Frequently the women wear white dresses with tartan sashes and, because the exercise is warming, the men wear shirts without jackets in the United States.
These often stiff performances of country dances should not be confused with recreational and social enjoyment of the same dances. Sadly but frequently these exhibitions show none of the spirit but merely the precision of the traditional dances and the men are too often trained to look emasculated by the dance teachers who emphasize a French rather than a folk tradition in having them keep a straight back. None should dismiss the practice of Scottish country dancing until they have seen a Highland ball in progress with people enjoying the dancing as a social activity of the most exhilarating kind.
Pipers and members of pipe bands, see above. Individual pipers may wear civilian day dress for competitions.
- LADIES’ DAY DRESS
- MEN’S DAY WEAR
- KILT HOSE AND FLASHES
- SHOES OR GHILLIE BROGUES
- KILTS (singular = a kilt)
- SKIAN DUBH
- SPORRAN STRAPS
- KILT JACKETS AND WAISTCOATS
- CAP BADGES
- NO FEATHERS IN YOUR CAP
- EVENING WEAR
- LADIES’ EVENING DRESS
- MEN’S EVENING WEAR
- BUYING MEN’S HIGHLAND DRESS
For ladies this most often means a well-cut tartan skirt, dress or suit in the latest fashion. Traditionally Highland ladies wore fashionable clothes where they could afford them and added a light plaid or shawl of tartan material and this custom is not out of place today. Skirt length depends upon either fashion, occasion or preference. Ladies wear kilted skirts (kilting meaning pleating) but not kilts (except when in band uniform).
Since ladies' fashions are so much more varied than those of men, they lend themselves to historical references without entering the realm of reproduction costume. The calf-length tartan kilted skirt with a wide belt and a blouse using some lace at cuffs and collar or down the front, sometimes combined with a tartan or velvet sleeveless jacket or waistcoat, has been used successfully by some Scots girls who were obliged to appear with those of other nations in National dress. When combined with a light plaid worn as a shawl or a hooded cloak of tartan, variations on this theme can be striking.
For more formal day dress an ankle length tartan skirt can be impressive.
For men in Scotland, full day dress in civilian Scottish National dress means kilt stockings with garter flashes, brogue shoes, a kilt and sporran, a shirt, tie, waistcoat (vest) and tweed jacket. A bonnet is useful particularly as it allows the wearing of the crest-in-buckled strap silver badge and, when available, the plant badge.
For everyday use there are as many varieties of dress above the belt with a kilt as there are with slacks. Depending upon the task or situation one can wear anything from no shirt to a sports shirt, from a pullover to an anorak. Only remember that even with a fishing jacket, it is best to wear short jackets since the longer jackets which look fine with slacks will not look well with a kilt if they extend more than about 6" below the waist. Shoes and stockings, or lack of them, can also be varied to task and time.
However here the idea is to outline those norms of Scottish national day dress with which you can be secure in any situation where a more traditional or senior person in the United States would wear a jacket and tie with street clothes. Using that as standard you can then vary the combinations for more informal situations.
The items of full Scottish national day dress are discussed here in the order in which they should be put on when dressing to cause the least strain. Lacing shoes is easier without a kilt.
Due to the warmth of climate and preferred level of house heating in the United States, men commonly forgo the waistcoat and, on less formal occasions such as at Highland Games, the tie and jacket. This means that the shirt becomes of added importance, however the shirts with large full sleeves sold by Scottish traders are more costume than National Dress, and unpatterned dress or sports shirts in the current fashion are particularly appropriate. The use of "T" shirts with the kilt is more justifiable when participation in sporting events or for the younger generation. Some of a military background wear military style shirts which look well. In the United States it is currently customary among retired military gentlemen to wear medals with these shirts. The practice is entirely a matter of personal choice and is in no way an obligation, very much the opposite.
To avoid possible embarrassment for those visiting Games in Scotland, it is as well to be aware of the different customs there with regard to medals, name tags and other items sometimes worn in North America. In Scotland medals would not be worn in daytime with civilian clothes except when participating in a military ceremonial such as wreath-laying or armistice (veteran's or memorial day) parade. Similarly plastic name tags, while possibly now worn at some business conferences in Britain, are never worn at Highland Games in Scotland and are considered the equivalent in the United States of turning up at a reception with a plastic pocket-protector full of ballpoints, a bit nerdish. But it is up to you.
However in North America, since the successful recruiting of previously unknown people to the clan societies requires that those doing the recruiting are easily identifiable to strangers, it has become customary for those manning tents to wear a plastic name tag if they wish to do so. These name tags are not, of course, a part of Scottish National Dress as such, and their use is to be identified with the work that is being done and not with the clothes being worn.
If you need support there is no disgrace in wearing some, however if you wear your kilt in the traditional way it is important to be sure to wear shirts with long tails and aprons.
Tartan ties are seldom worn in Scotland, particularly with Highland dress. But there is no law against them. The same ideas of attempting a balanced effect and compatible colors applies when selecting ties to wear with Highland dress as do with street clothes. Since jackets are seldom worn at United States Highland Games in the heat of summer, ties might be seen as appropriate for more formal occasions such as church, parades and receptions when jackets are worn.
Kilt Hose, also know as "day stockings" in Scotland, are generally heavier than evening stockings, both for warmth and, when out on the hill shooting or stalking, for protection from the heather. However the warmer climate in the United States generally calls for stockings of a lighter knit. Garter flashes can be bought either with adjustable elastic or in the old style to be wound and tucked. The color of stockings and flashes should compliment both kilt and each other. Vermilion red is often used for flashes with good effect, but some wear green or light blue.
The tops of kilt stocking generally fold over for a couple of inches, or even fold twice, down and up again, and so hide the elastic garters. However some stockings in an older style display the garters and have a castellated top. These need special care in tying the necessary ribbon garters. The top of the stocking should be worn two fingers width below the lump of bone which protrudes on the outside of the leg at the top of the side of the calf.
Early Highland shoes were primitive and more like undecorated mocersons or moccasins, pieces of hide pulled together round the ankle with a thong. These would have been generally brown in color. With the transformation of the fighting strength, chiefs and chieftains of the clans into Highland regiments and their officers in the second half of the 18th century, the footwear of the Highlanders improved and became black polished leather. Since for many years the majority of those civilians found kilted in Scotland had formerly served in Highland regiments, it was natural that the custom persisted of wearing black shoes with a kilt. Many feel strongly on one side or the other of this issue but if you take the long view it is a matter of wearing what seems most appropriate to you. In Scotland black will be least obtrusive. The shoes or brogues worn in Highland regiments are virtually the same as American black `wing-tip' shoes. For those on a tight budget, these are ideal for wearing with a kilt as they can equally well be worn with street clothes. There are more elaborate brogues available on the market from dealers in Highland dress which have a more open lacing, allowing the longer tasselled laces to be worn cross-tied about the calf.
The kilt should have pleats all the way round the back and sides with only the front apron of both ends being unpleated. Men who hold the ends of their kilt in each hand with the pleats behind them should fold the right hand end about them first, the left and end folding over the apron of the right. This leaves the edge of the end which started in the left hand lying along the right side of the right thigh. Ladies' tartan skirts fold the opposite way.
Civilian and officer's kilts are made with straps, military other ranks kilts use pins at the waist as they must fit many sizes of waist. In Scotland a heavier material is generally used for day kilts and a lighter for evening, although if too light, kiltmakers sometimes sew elastic along the inside of the pleats about 6' above the bottom hem to avoid over-exposure during a dance swing.
Your kilt should hang an inch free of the ground in front of your knee when you kneel down. Adjusting this length (using a belt if necessary) is highly important as kilts worn too long or too short can make you look ridiculous. When first wearing a kilt you must learn to cross your legs or keep the knees together when seated.
For tartan see that section.
Since the tops of modern kilts are not designed to be exposed to view, normally being hidden by a belt or waistcoat (vest), a piper's belt, about 2 1/4" wide and with a metal buckle about 2 1/2" x 4", is particularly useful in the United States. For evening wear the belt should be of black leather and the buckle silver. The buckle gives a chance to display ornamental work, particularly of heraldic design.
Skian Dubhs (pronounced skian doo), the sheathed knife worn on the right side of the right leg in the top of the stocking, are always handsome and even useful but rember that when dancing they need to be firmly secured by tighter garters. Lawmen in the United States with limited sophistication have been known to consider it a concealed weapon and so illegal. With both dirks and skians the more gaudy and over-large Cairngorm stones (garnets) in the tops can upset the balance of the knife. The skian should be worn with the top of the sheath just above the garter.
Ebony and silver Dirks with black leather sheaths are worn by pipers as day dress but by civilians only as evening dress, however other belt-hung sheath knives may be useful with day dress when hunting or camping. Again, check the local laws. The innovation of including knife and fork in the dirk seems first to have appeared in the middle of the 181t century. Dirks were originally worn immediately to the right of the sporran. However military custom now has them worn on the side of the right buttock in the position used for a bayonet.
With the recent rise in urban misunderstanding of rural customs and environmental issues, care should be taken in selecting fur or animal head sporrans which avoid infringement of import or interstate laws. Day sporrans made of the Skins of small fur bearing animals had been know earlier but became popular in Scotland in the early 19th century, otters, seals and badgers being favorites. Previously the bag type of sporran of cured leather with a metal half-moon clasp at the top was common. This came back into use in the Highland regiments recently with an interest in historical dress. The metal clasp gives opportunity for decorative or heraldic emblems. The standard all-leather sporran is perfectly adequate for day dress and some have adopted the regimental custom of inserting a small silver heraldic crest or emblem in the center of the smooth panel. The leather for evening sporrans is most often black, rather than the brown more often used for day wear.
The strap can be either a leather strap or a strap with a center section of silvered chain to show on either side of the sporran, the latter being particularly apt for evening wear. Again, black with silver buckle and chain in most used with evening dress.
Waistcoats, known as `vests' in the trade and in western North America, add considerably to the style of Highland dress, however in warmth climates they are not often practical in summer or indoors until old age warrants more warmth and dignity. Similarly the weight of tweed for kilt jackets should be lighter for use in the warmer situations. Some Highland gentry still wear checked tweed kilt jackets, however in the United States the convention about not mixing checks means that in general plain unpatterned cloth is preferred for kilt jackets. This does not hold in Britain. Again, the color should compliment that of the tartan worn, certain muted browns, blues and greens being handsome with Campbell tartan.
If you are going to wear a jacket with your kilt it is best to buy or borrow a kilt jacket as normal sports jackets are too long and do not do a kilt justice. If you can afford a second day kilt jacket, a dark charcoal gray tweed jacket and waistcoat look exceptionally well at weddings and particularly at funerals.
The traditional Highland bonnet was and is based upon the old blue bonnet of the Scots which can be found in 16th century drawings of Highlanders. The folding "Glengarry" was invented in Victorian times as convenient for military use and has now come back into general use in Highland regiments. Today the civilian style of bonnet is almost identical to that worn in the first half ofthe 20th century by some Highland regiments. The civilian style bonnets worn with Scottish National Dress are most often of the same cut as those formerly worn by officers and may be of pale tan, light blue, dark blue or Lovat green. Some have dicing and others do not. The use of the dark blue bonnet with dicing may be more appropriate for evening use perhaps, but that is a matter of taste.
The slit and ribbons go at the back of the head, the badge over and behind the left eye and then the top is pulled down to the right front. The bonnets look best when worn slightly over the front of the head, perhaps a finger's width above the eyebrow, never on the back of the head and never with hair showing under the front band. Bonnets should be worn for parades but must always be taken off when entering a church or private house (although not necessarily a tent). In Scotland the custom of taking off one's hat to a lady was awkward with a bonnet, due to messing the hair, and so it became more customary to touch the bonnet in a salute when out of doors.
The Chiefs of clans have, by customary courtesy, allowed their followers to use the Chief's heraldic crest as a cap or bonnet badge when worn within a buckled strap with the Chief's motto and all combined as a silver badge. Members of armigerous families (those whose Chieftains have been granted arms) may have different crests from the Chief, so that you will see a Campbell of Airds wearing a swan, or a Campbell of Inverawe wearing a deer's head crest. Those who have not traced their ancestry to some armigerous family or received a grant of arms themselves, wear the Chief's crest badge. If a small sprig of the `clan' plant badge is available it may be stuck behind the crest badge and rising no more than about 1 1/2" above the top of the badge.
Feathers are NOT generally worn in the bonnet in Scotland except by Chiefs. Officially the rule is; a Chief wears three feathers, a chieftain wears two, and an armigerous gentleman (one who has a right to heraldic arms) wears one. However the wearing of bonnet feathers by those who are not chiefs is generally considered presumptuous in Scotland. As with the heraldry of Clan Campbell, in one sense these rules do not extend outside Scotland. At the same time it is in the interest of overseas Campbells to uphold customs which add to the dignity of their chiefs. Voluntarily observing the rule and custom of the Scots in the matter of bonnet feathers is one way to strengthen the unity of the clan and to reinforce the genuine and traditional in Highland dress.
Hackles' or short thick bunches of feather about -- cm (2") long are worn by some Highland regiments but are not currently seen in civilian Highland dress in Scotland. Some among the once Jacobite clans are currently interested in reviving the custom of the white cockade, a rather divisive concept rooted in complete misunderstanding of the consequences of Jacobite success.
The long stick with a curved top used by both stockmen and shepherds in Scotland is, on more well dressed occasions such as Highland Games there, used by men with daytime Highland dress. Its use is equally appropriate in North America. The cromach (pron. CROMach, with the `O' as in song) gained popularity in the 20th century and has come into accepted use for the Stewards (or organizers) who run Highland Games in Scotland. But use of the cromach is in no way limited to those in authority. The making of fine cromachs is a craft much admired in Scotland and they are generally made of hazel and sometimes with a horn handle with a carved finial. Some makers bend twigs on the tree and wait years for them to grow thick enough to cut for a cromach with the hook grown in.
There is another style of stick, sometimes seen at Games in North America, which is a twisted or club-like stick. This is properly a shelailagh and is more of Irish than Highland origin and not particularly appropriate to Highlanders unless of `Scots-Irish' ancestry perhaps.
Highland evening dress is more formal than day dress. There is a misconception among some people in America that the British are more formal than the Americans. This is only true among limited number of more cosmopolitan Britons for whom making some occasions more formal than others adds to the quality, dignity and variety of life. The same can be found among Americans of a more traditional background who like a change of pace now and again. There are even a few in the United States and Britain who find any vestige of formality to be somehow anti-democratic, tending towards the Chinese who for a time dressed everyone the same in a forced equality.
Because of the vigorous and even athletic nature of Highland reels and Country dances when danced for social enjoyment, modern men's evening Highland dress has tended to do away with the `Christmas-tree' or `everything-bar-the-kitchen-stove' style of dress. There was a time up to WWII in Scotland where plaids were worn to balls, sometimes even with sword belts, dirks, hunting horns, silver dag pistols and the keys of the castle. To some, these all vied with military decorations to create an impression of a hardware store in motion, handsome though the effect undoubtedly was.
Today the silver belt buckles, miniature (in the United States) military medals, silver buttons and silver-headed hair sporrans create quite enough dazzle without causing too much danger to the opposite sex and to their dresses, which can all too easily catch on sharp objects.
The recognized formal evening dress for Highland ladies is to wear a dress in the fashion of the time or of their choosing. A fairly recent custom has developed of wearing a silk (or similar) tartan sash. Obviously the choice of color of dress should be compatible with the tartan to be worn. Like the bonnet feathers for the men, the shoulder on which the sash is worn is important for ladies. Lady Chiefs, the wives of Chiefs and the wives of the Colonel of the Regiment of Scottish regiments, all wear the sash over the left shoulder. All others wear the sash pinned on the right shoulder. This is one of those conventions which ad spice to ladies' Highland dress.
Evening dresses designed of tartan have been worn at times to great effect. Some absolutely stunning evening dresses have been made from the darker Campbell or Black Watch dress material, when it can be found. With a tartan dress the sash need not necessarily be worn.
In general, in the evening Highland dress for men everything tends to be of finer or thinner material. This is true of the dancing brogues or pumps, the stockings, kilts, shirts, waistcoats and jackets. The items of day dress above are outlined in the order they would be put on and the same order applies for evening dress.
The area of widest variety in acceptable evening dress can be found above the belt. There are a number of styles of jacket to chose from and these fall into two categories. In the first category are jackets with waistcoats which allow for wearing a bow tie, and in the second are those which involve the wearing of a jabot or lace collar and ruffle. (Jabot is originally a French word and so pronounced ja-BO). The former are generally of dark material similar to that used for a dinner jacket or tuxedo and the latter generally of velvet or velveteen. Since the latter style fits closer to the waist, those with any tendency to a portly disposition may find the former more appropriate. Silver buttons are the norm for both styles. Smooth, slightly domed, square buttons often look best unless you have inherited family buttons.
For those occasions where black tie is required but where the climate makes jackets uncomfortable, the Highland regiments adopted what the British Services term "Red Sea Rig" for officers mess dinners in the tropics. Tartan trews are worn with an evening long sleeved shirt and black bow tie. The top of the trews are hidden not by a belt but by a silk cummerbund. The cummerbunds were of regimental tartan but with the dark Campbell tartan a red, green or blue cummerbund could be effective. British miniature decorations were not normally worn with this less formal rig.
Your complete outfit can be bought at once or in stages. There is always the initial choice between trews (tartan dress slacks) and a kilt. But given the ambition and self-confidence to wear a kilt in public, the first purchases can be phased as follows:
- Day kilt of Campbell tartan (`ancient' in the trade).
- Day stockings and garters/flashes (usually red)
- Black wing-tip shoes or kilt brogues
- Piper's belt (black with silver buckle)
- Day sporran
- Some buy a bonnet and cap badge first, but that can wait
- Day kilt jacket (with a waistcoat optional)
- Evening kilt jacket (with waistcoat if that style)
- Lace jabot (if required)
- Evening sporran (you can use the day strap and chain
- Evening stockings (you can use the same flashes)
- Evening brougues (or use your day shoes meanwhile)
The shirt you use for evening wear will depend upon the style of the jacket. Those for a bow tie are the same as for use with a tuxedo, those for use with a jabot are the old collerless style which may be hard to find and need studs and cufflinks.
- Evening kilt
- Evening brogues or dancing pumps if not got already
- Evening stockings
- Skian ddubh
- Bonnet and cap badge if not yet bought
- Exotic extras like a dirk, an Inverness cape, a plaid, kilt pin, cummerbunded, trews, can all wait until you win the sweepstakes.